From Colonial to Cosmopolitan: Antigua Guatemala
Since the end of its civil war over a decade ago, Guatemala has been a common starting point for backpacking adventures through Central and South America. Its intoxicating mix of beautiful scenery, Mayan culture and ancient ruins have long appealed to independent travelers. Yet nowadays tourists of all persuasions are heading to Guatemala, and one place in particular is continuing to drive the upward trend in its global tourist appeal: the beautiful colonial city of Antigua Guatemala.
Set in the stunning Valley of Ponchoy at 1500m above sea level, Antigua has a calm climate with moderate temperatures year-round, something which belies its tumultuous position in an area that has seen many destructive earthquakes and is surrounded by three volcanoes (one of which, Fuego, still puffs out smoke on an almost daily basis). Antigua’s past battles with its geography can be seen in its many ruined cathedrals, convents and monuments. And it is this that is so endearing to Antigua’s modern-day tourists: this is a city with a story.
Once the capital city of all Spanish-controlled Central America, Antigua is known to be the birthplace of the Baroque architectural style that later spread throughout Latin America. The city is abundant with stunning buildings that were built in a flurry in the 17th Century when Antigua was at the height of its influence.
Yet those destructive fault lines were constantly a problem here, and after another devastating earthquake in 1773, the capital city was moved to the less earthquake- vulnerable area of the current Guatemala City. After this Antigua became known as La Antigua Guatemala (the old Guatemala), and surely never has there been a more apt name; its historic ruins, Renaissance style and UNESCO world heritage listing make it a colonial gem waiting to be explored.
Yet it is more than just the history of the place behind Antigua’s appeal: Antigua is loved by foreigners and locals alike. It can be seen on every street: its colorful colonial stucco buildings painted in pretty shades of blue, pink and yellow are both homes and hotels; its central park is a mix of tourists taking photos and locals nattering with friends; its popular local market is a bustle of Antiguans whilst next-door the artisan market is teaming with tourists.
Unlike many other beautiful cities that often seem too precious, Antigua has somehow managed to balance its popularity as a beautiful tourist city with its everyday life as home to 35,000 people. And it is not just Guatemalans who call Antigua home; more and more foreigners are moving to Antigua to work and study, bringing with them international cuisine, a café culture and global brands. This thriving cosmopolitan vibe is being embraced by traditional Antiguans as well as their new neighbors.
Despite this Antigua is not without its problems; after all it is a city, albeit a small one. Only last year was the local mayor arrested on charges of money laundering and corruption. Yet unlike Guatemala City, Antigua is relatively crime-free. Thanks to the specialist Tourist Police, robberies and petty theft have been all but abolished from the central area. No other Guatemalan city feels this safe.
And nowhere in Guatemala do the old and new mingle quite so effortlessly. Antigua is a city to explore colonial pasts, beautiful architecture and intriguing traditions, and if it all gets too much just do like an Antiguan: grab a Guatemalan coffee and watch the world go by in the central park.
by Cheryl Claxton